Virtual reality hasn’t taken over quite like Mark Zuckerberg was hoping when he bought Oculus Rift for $2B USD back in 2014. That’s largely due to the immense cost for consumers to jump into high-quality VR, requiring a beefy gaming computer and an expensive headset. But adoption is growing quickly. In 2018 Valve reported that 0.8% of Steam users had a VR headset attached to their computers. That’s almost a doubling from 16 months prior.
While VR is still in its infancy, it hasn’t stopped an esports scene to begin budding around the new interactive technology.
“We’re at the beginning of VR League (VRL), year three, and we have seen a positive response, both in terms of players, teams, and publishers,” ESL’s Senior Vice President of Publisher & Developer Sean Charles said. “With titles like Onward and Echo Combat we are seeing more reasons than ever before to take part in the VR League and players are responding to the call to ‘VR’ action. Moreover with Ubisoft launching a competitive title, Space Junkies, is a great sign of what’s to come.”
Of the competitive VR titles that have been showcased, Echo Combat looks the most unique and interesting. Teams play as these vector-like characters that fly through a brightly colored environment, climbing on walls to find vantage points to shoot down their opponents. There’s a lot of subtle peeking around corners or from the top of scaffolding as players make real-world climbing motions, pulling themselves just inches higher to get a better angle of view against their opponents.
Echo Combat is made by Ready at Dawn, the Irvine, California, based studio that created God of War games on PSP and 2015’s The Order: 1886. The studio has been working on a slew of VR titles, all of which are being published by Oculus Studios. Because Oculus Studios published Echo Combat, the title is exclusive to the Rift headset.
Headset exclusivity is a potential problem for the VR industry, as it segments software behind certain branded headsets. But at the same time, it can be argued that exclusivity gives incentives for companies like Facebook to continue investing in high-quality software that can be used to sell more Oculus hardware. Albeit, there’s a certain absurdity to buying multiple headsets to get access to all VR games. Luckily, fans have created software — like Revive — that can trick the Oculus store to let games be played on theHTC’s Vive headset.
“We have been lucky from the outset with strong partners like Oculus and Intel that are eager to be on the cutting edge, and in year three we hope to see some new names joining the team” Charles said.
At the moment, viewership for VR esports has been very low. Other than the one-odd competition that’s been featured on Twitch’s front page, going to VODs on ESL’s Twitch and YouTube channels, most videos have only a couple of thousand views. And it makes sense. Esports viewers tend to watch games they themselves personally play or are familiar with. Introducing new titles just because there’s the novelty of VR can only entice so much curiosity from viewers when there’s a plethora of esports content to choose from.
According to Charles, 2018 saw six million unique views during the VR League season. ESL is hoping that number will grow in 20019.
“The fans have really been excited about the physicality of the VR esports,” Charles said. “Seeing the VRL players jumping and moving dynamically gives the audience immediate feedback on what is happening in the digital world.”
While VR is still slowly growing at the consumer space, there is one market where the technology has been taking off: family entertainment centers. Think of places like Main Event, a national chain of large complexes — mainly located in suburbs — that host everything from arcade games to bowling. These event centers have become the defacto venues for definitive VR experiences.
That’s exactly what Austin-based Virtuix has done with its VR treadmill, the Omni. It’s a concave surface where players wear low-friction shoes allowing them to run in place while their waists are affixed to the unit to keep them from falling off. Attach a VR headset, and the right game can pick up actual human running and translate that into the world of VR. When the Omni was first unveiled, it was marketed towards the consumer market. But as the Omni increasingly became more complex, it reached a price point outside of the realm of consumer affordability, a move into the commercial event market.
“This commercial entertainment market is not a small market. I mean this is a big, big industry. VR is getting a lot of traction there and so is our product,” Virtuix CEO Jan Goetgeluk said. “We may go back to the home, to the consumer in the future at some point. But in the meantime, we’re having a lot of success in the commercial and entertainment sector and that’s where investors are excited about.”
In 2019, it was announced that HP and HTC would provide prize support to Virtuix’s Omniverse ESPORTS tournament series. It’s a modest pool of $50K USD as teams of two will compete at participating event center locations for a chance at the prize. It’s very much like Street Fighter tournaments in the 80s, where competitors had to meet at local arcades to practice and compete. Event partners are hoping that Omniverse ESPORTS creates repeat visits from hardcore competitors and starts building a competitive community around its locations.
Right now there are over 3,000 Omnis at over 500 commercial locations in 45 countries. Virtuix has created a distributor network and is continually creating new experiences for large event centers to buy and then sell to families that walk in the door. On average, an experience inside the Omni will set consumers back $1 a minute.
One of those event center owners is Ilya Polokhim, who runs Hubneo VR Lab in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The 40-year-old tech enthusiast left his well paying Wall Street corporate finance job and started his own VR center about a year and a half ago. Given that it’s Manhattan, the space is relatively small, especially compared to the massive suburban event centers around the country. But Hubneo has two Omnis, as well as two hydraulic simulation racing setups, a simulation flying cockpit, and spaces for room-VR games.
Credit: Hubneo VR Lab
“Our marketing is completely focused on word of mouth,” Polokhim said. “It’s basically gamers, racers, and pilots coming here and playing here and telling their friends about the place. We don’t spend a dollar on actual marketing.”
There was a birthday party going on while interviewing Polokhim. Kids were highly engaged in the Omni experience, and were jumping back-and-forth between running on the treadmill and switching to the driving simulator — of course, with pizza breaks in-between. Polokhim’s clientele is a good mix of birthday parties, corporate events, and regular walk-ins.
“Obviously with any business there are months where you do better and months you do worse,” Polokhim said. “I can tell you that we’ve been profitable since the seventh month since this place has been open.”
Interestingly, Polokhim didn’t need to take out a bank loan to get Hubneo started. He worked with people back from his Wall Street days that were also VR enthusiasts. And more interestingly, it’s been some regular customers that have jumped on as investors. Even his landlord is a fan of virtual reality and was excited to have the space open up.
Credit: Downpour Interactive
Hubneo VR Lab will also be participating in Virtuix’s Omniverse ESPORTS throughout the year. Polokhim has some dedicated competitors that want a piece of that $50K prize.
“For us it’s not only about just putting people and wowing them into virtual reality. It’s about actual repeat customer,” Polokhim said. “We have roughly 40-45% returning customer rate.”
At the moment, it’s hard to say if or when VR esports will really take off. There are two possibilities: either that a game grows slowly and organically or that a game will have its “Ninja” moment where the Twitch zeitgeist becomes completely affixed on one title. Until VR becomes more ubiquitous, it’s likely that it will be a slow grind. But considering that top players like Facebook, Intel, and HTC are willing to continue to support these leagues financially, there will be legs to keep VR moving forward.
And as VR technology continues to get cheaper and more accessible, we’ll be seeing a lot more running, ducking, and climbing in our esports.